martes, 11 de noviembre de 2014

Lo que dice César Aira

"Lo que dice César Aira"
by Sergio Pitol
Mexico, 2006

Sergio Pitol's eight page long tequila shot "Lo que dice César Aira" ["What César Aira Says," as far as I know not yet available for consumption in translation] is the sort of warm, memoiristic slap to the head that might induce more of a fannish literary history buzz in people who are already familiar with Aira's 1997 El congreso de literatura [The Literary Conference]--a true story about a mad scientist named César Aira who decides to clone Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes at a literary conference in Venezuela--but even for people who haven't drunk the Aira Kool-Aid as yet, it's still exactly the sort of mind-altering amber goodness you might expect when one of your favorite writers decides to hoist a shot glass or two in honor of another one of your favorites.  In any event, I'll step out of the way and let Pitol (photo above) get the anecdotal ball rolling:

Debió ser a finales de 1993 o principios de 1994 cuando conocí a César Aira.  Fue en uno de esos congresos anuales de literatura en Mérida, Venezuela, a donde invitaban una o dos docenas de escritores hispanoamericanos, y que tenía como sede un hotel campestre, rodeado de chalets.  Después de los escritores venezolanos, que eran legión, la delegación mexicana era la más amplia: seis o siete narradores.  A mí me tocó compartir una cabaña de tres dormitorios, un amplio salón y un baño, con el español Enrique Vila-Matas, amigo desde hacía muchos años y con un joven argentino para mí enteramente desconocido.  Era César Aira, quien se presentó con nosotros muy educadamente, pero con un leve aire de lejanía.  Durante los cinco o seis días que duró la reunión, cambiamos escasísimas palabras.  Los saludos en la mañana, las buenas noches después de la cena y durante el transcurso del día alguna que otra frase banal sobre el clima.  En la noche había fiestas y convivios bastante divertidos a donde él no concurría.  Siempre lo veía inclinando escribiendo en unas pequeñas libretas.  Sus compañeros argentinos Héctor Libertella y Sergio Chejfec hablaban de él con reverencia.  Comentaban que quizás era la figura más inusitada de la nueva literatura.  Era una escritura provocativa, irritante, radicalmente desconcertante, semejante a la de Gombrowicz, nos decían a los mexicanos, quienes, como yo, también lo desconocían.  El único de nosotros que podía participar en esas conversaciones era Hernán Lara Zavala, pues había publicado en la colección que dirigía en la UNAM una novela suya, El llanto.  El tema del congreso ese año se ceñia a una ars poética; cada uno debía explicar la suya.  Aira definió su juego de procedimientos narrativos como un mecanismo que se movía en dirección contraria a las convenciones narrativas.  A él no le interesaba hacer lo que todos hacían, ni seguir las líneas de Balzac o Stendhal, a quienes conocía perfectamente y respetaba, porque esas formas ya estaban cristalizadas; la novela contemporánea que tocase los mismos temas y siguiera haciendo algunas variaciones sobre formas narrativas ya canonizadas, le hastiaba.  A él le interesaba remontarse a los orígenes, empaparse en ellos, para luego proseguir una fuga hacia el futuro, hacia lo no manoseado, hacia una escritura estimulante (173-174).

[It must have been at the end of 1993 or the beginning of 1994 when I met César Aira.  It was at one of those yearly literary conferences in Mérida, Venezuela, where they'd invited one or two dozen Spanish-American writers, and which had a rural hotel, surrounded by chalets, as its base.  After the Venezuelan writers, who were legion, the Mexican delegation was the largest in size: six or seven narrators.  It was my lot to share a three bedroom cabin, a bathroom and a spacious common room with the Spaniard Enrique Vila-Matas, a longtime friend, and with a young Argentine who was entirely unknown to me.  It was César Aira, who introduced himself to us very politely, but with a slightly distant air.  During the five or six days that the gathering lasted, we exchanged very few words.  Greetings in the morning, goodnights after dinner, and during the course of the day one or another banal comment on the weather.  In the evenings, there were quite entertaining parties and banquets which he didn't attend.  His fellow Argentines Héctor Libertella and Sergio Chejfec spoke of him with reverence.  They commented that he was perhaps the most unusual figure in the new literature.  His writing was provocative, irritating, radically disconcerting, similar to that of Gombrowicz, they told us Mexicans, the rest of whom, like me, also didn't know about Aira.  The only one of us who could participate in those conversations was Hernán Lara Zavala since he had published a novel of Aira's, El llanto, in the imprint he oversaw for UNAM.  The theme of the conference that year was on the topic of an Ars Poetica; each writer had to explain his own.  Aira defined his strategy for narrative proceedings as a mechanism which moved in the opposite direction of narrative conventions.  He wasn't interested in doing what everybody else was doing, nor in continuing in the line of Balzac or Stendhal, whose work he knew well and respected, because those forms were already crystallized; the contemporary novel which touched on the same themes and continued making slight variations on narrative forms which were already canonized bored him.  What interested him was going back to the origins, steeping himself in them, to then press on with a flight toward the future, toward forms that hadn't been fiddled with, towards a writing that was stimulating.]

As if so engrossed in the Ars Poetica business that he momentarily forgot that he was writing about his introduction to Aira, Pitol spends most of his follow-up paragraph citing the literary mad scientist on his preference for "la mala literatura" ["bad literature"] over "la literatura convencional" ["conventional literature"] even when the latter is actually good literature ("aunque sea buena," 174).  The words that follow are Aira's as lifted from an essay by Marcelo Damiani.  Just what does César Aira say?

Lo que tiene de bueno la literatura mala es que opera con una maravillosa libertad, la libertad del disparate, de la locura, y a veces la literatura buena es mala porque para ser buena tiene que cuidarse tanto, se restringe tanto, que termina siendo mala.  Termina siendo aburrida, o directamente no vale la pena leerla.  Algunos libros de Marguerite Yourcenar, Octavio Paz o Milan Kundera, que se suponen buena literatura, podría traducirse interiormente como "Estoy bien escrito, estoy bien escrito, estoy bien escrito, etcétera", y eso es todo.  Y uno querría otra cosa, ¿no?...  Una buena literatura es buena en relación con las normas establecidas.  Si la función de la literatura es inventar normas nuevas, no podemos limitarnos a seguir obedeciéndolas (174).

[What's good about bad literature is that it operates with a wonderful freedom, the freedom of folly, of madness, and at times good literature is bad because in order to be good it has to be fussed over to such an extent, to be reined in so much, that it ends up being bad.  It ends up being boring or, more to the point, it isn't worth bothering to read.  Some of Marguerite Yourcenar's books, of Octavio Paz's or Milan Kundera's, which are presumed to be good literature, could be translated internally as "I'm well written, I'm well written, I'm well written, etc." and that's it.  And one would want something different than that, no?...  A good literature is good in relationship to the established norms.  But if the function of literature is to concoct new norms, we can't limit ourselves to continue abiding by them.]

"I'm well written, I'm well written, I'm well written, etc."  Classic bookish smack talk!

Whatever one makes of Aira's dismissal of conventionally "good" literature (I, for one, like to imagine that he could just as easily have been throwing under the bus those book bloggers who get all weak in the knees whenever they drone on about that nonexistent genre known as "literary fiction"), his admirer and fellow novelist Pitol returns to the autobiographical/memoir tip to speak of the Argentine in the most glowing of terms.  The novel that made him an Aira convert?  I'll let the essayist tell the story:

Para continuar con la coexistencia en aquel encuentro de escritores en Mérida y el trato con Aira, puedo decir que fue sólo el último día cuando hablamos de literatura, de lo que leíamos y lo que cada quien estaba buscando en la escritura.  Al despedirnos me regaló su última novela: Cómo me hice monja.  Ese día marca un hito en mi vida de lector: existe un antes y un después de la lectura de esa extraordinaria novelita.  La leí en la noche.  Al día siguiente, en Caracas, no pude sino hablar de ese libro, y poco después, al regresar en el avión a México, volví a releerlo.  Desde hacía muchos años no había sentido el asombro y placer que me produjo recorrer una y otra vez sus páginas, donde la transgresión era continua, como lo era también la permanente transmutación de toda norma de tiempo y espacio (175).

[To continue on with that writers' encounter in Mérida and my relations with Aira, I can say that it was only on the last day when we spoke of literature, of what we were reading and what each of us was looking for in writing.  Upon saying goodbye to each other, he gave me a gift of his latest novel: How I Became a Nun.  That day marks a milestone in my life as a reader: there exists a before and an after in regard to the reading of that extraordinary little novel.  I read it at night.  The next day, in Caracas, I couldn't do anything else but talk about that book, and shortly afterward, on the plane back to Mexico, I went back and reread it.  It had been many years since I felt the astonishment and pleasure produced in me by thumbing through its pages again and again, where the transgression was ongoing as was the permament transmutation of all norms of time and space.]

One of the reasons I wanted to share this piece with you today, friends and lurkers, is that in his typically exuberant fashion, drunk on literature as he so often is in his nonfiction writing, Pitol uses this confession as a prelude to an Acapulco cliff diving-like leap into the waters of readerly delirium.  He claims that the adolescent reader lives and dies with the happiness produced by the reading of works that produce just such delirium--in his case Mann's Doctor Faustus; Dickens' Great Expectations; Schwob's The Children's Crusade; Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom; Borges' The Aleph; the Quixote "of course," and a host of unnamed authors.  Although Pitol admits that this adolescent delirium tends to lessen in frequency over the years, it never really disappears, a pretext which leads Pitol to cite another number of the books he read later in life which took him back to this readerly paradise of his youth.  Among the titles? "Casi todas las novelas cortas y algunos cuentos de Chejov" ["Almost all the short novels and some short stories by Chekhov"]; The Brothers Karamozov, "que fue en mí una lectura tardía" ["which was a late encounter for me"]; Tolstoy's War and Peace; Gogol's short stories; Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita; Rulfo's The Burning Plain; almost all Galdós; Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers; Kusniewicz's The King of the Two Sicilies; Felisberto Hernández's The Flooded House.  What does this all have to do with Aira and How I Became a Nun?  "La mas tardía revelación fue la obra de Aira" ["Aira's work was the latest revelation"], Pitol tells us (175).

Although the enthusiastic Pitol says many more things about Aira in this reminiscence that I'd love to share, I'm afraid you'll have to take my word on that for now since your humble scribe is about to succumb to a bad case of translator's cramp.  Before I go, though, a few final notes.  Pitol, who would have been about 60 years old when he first met the younger writer, says that he now only has five or six of the earliest Aira titles left to read since "los he leído tan pronto como los he encontrado (que no es nada fácil) y luego los he releído en un orden cronólogico" ["I've read them as soon as I've found them (which is no easy task) and then I've reread them in chronological order"] in search of the method behind Aira's madness (176).  What has Pitol found?  Among other things, this: "trozos de la vida del escritor, de las calles que transita, los cafés donde escribe, el pueblo de su infancia.  En ese continuum se expande la biografía secreta del autor" ["slices of the writer's life, of the streets he travels, the cafés where he writes, the town of his childhood.  The secret biography of the author expands in that continuum"] (Ibid.).  That being said, Pitol does makes a distinction between what he calls "las más altas expresiones" ["the highest expressions"] of Aira's work and the more "tedious"or lesser ones, proposing The Hare, El bautismo, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Un sueño realizado, and Las noches de Flores as the cornerstones of Aira's oeuvre alongside How I Became a Nun (176-177).  What does Aira say in these books as Pitol sees it? "No me interesa, dice, la literatura comercial.  Tuve la suerte siempre de ser un snob.  En lugar de leer lo que leía todo el mundo, leía cosas que no leía nadie.  Leo a los clásicos, a los extravagantes, a los surrealistas, a los locos" ["Commercial literature, he says, doesn't interest me.  I was lucky to always be a snob.  Instead of reading what everybody else was reading, I read things that nobody read.  I read the classics, the outlandish writers, the surrealists, the madmen"] (177).  However, as Pitol adds, there's a big difference between "el escritor excéntrico y el vanguardista" ["the eccentric writer and the avant-garde writer"] just as there's a big difference between the works of Tristan Tzara, Filippo Marinetti and André Breton in comparison to the works of Gogol, Bruno Schulz and César Aira (179).  The crux of the matter?  "César Aira ha declarado su deuda con los vanguardistas, sobre todo los surrealistas; ha estado cerca de ellos.  Ha acometido retos tan peligrosos como los vanguardistas, pero su temperamento, sus gustos, su ars poetica es plenamente distinta.  Es uno de lo pocos autores que seriamente hacen de la escritura una celebración" ["César Aira has expressed his debt to the avant-garde, the surrealists above all.  He's been close to them.  He's undertaken challenges as risky as those of the avant-garde, but his temperament, his tastes, his Ars Poetica are completely different.  He's one of the few authors who seriously turn literature into a celebration"] (180).  I'll drink to that--here's mud in your Aira.

Source
"Lo que dice César Aira" appears on pp. 173-180 of Pitol's La patria del lenguage: Lecturas y escrituras latinoamericanas (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 2013) and has been anthologized in at least one other Pitol collection that I can't remember the name of right now.

domingo, 9 de noviembre de 2014

Poemas y antipoemas

Poemas y antipoemas (Cátedra, 2009)
by Nicanor Parra
Chile, 1954

Nicanor Parra, the Chilean poet & antipoet who just celebrated his 100th birthday a couple of months ago, actually published his signature work Poemas y antipoemas [Poems and Antipoems] more than half a century ago now.  So what the heck is antipoetry anyway?  More on that in a moment. For now, though, it's surely worth noting that René de Costa, whose amusing and info-packed introduction to Poemas y antipoemas posits a tripartite division among anti-Gabriela Mistral, anti-Pablo Neruda, and even anti-Nicanor Parra strains of poetry (!) within the three groupings of 29 poems, reminds us that the poet himself considered the first part of the work to be "neorromántica y postmodernista" ["neoromantic and postmodernist"] (18-19) in nature: i.e. poems rather than antipoems at the outset. Be that as it may, the first poem, "Sinfonía de cuna" (see the complete text in Spanish here accompanied by an English translation by Naomi Lindstrom here), illustrates several typical features of Parra at work from the title's wordplay (the Spanish term for lullaby is "canción de cuna," literally a "cradle song," but the poet has gone beyond that by composing a "sinfonía de cuna," or a "cradle symphony"), to the conversational tone which takes the starch out of more self-important varieties of poetry via the ironic promotion of clichés or the wry introduction of a foreign word here or there ("Dites moi, don angel,/Comment va monsieur"), to the poet's insult of the reader (he describes an angel he had once met as "Fatuo como el cisne,/Frío como un riel,/Gordo como un pavo,/Feo como usted" or what Lindstrom renders in "Lullabaloo" as "As silly as a swan/As cold as a crowbar/As fat as a duck/As ugly as you"), to the poet's abusive, gender-bending farewell to the angel (Parra's "Que le vaya bien,/Que la pise el auto,/Que la mate el tren," translated by Lindstrom as "Have a nice day/Get run over by a car,/Get killed by a train," is equally blunt in both languages, but the English misses out on the him/her gender-bending in the switch from the masculine "le" to the feminine "la" in the Spanish), and so on until the very end of the poem when the poet abruptly signs off with an "unpoetic" ending borrowed from a popular refrain: "Ya se acabó el cuento,/Uno, dos y tres" [literally: "The story's over/One, two and three"; Lindstrom's non-literal but probably more effective translation: "So that's the story of the angel./The End"].  Parra, as one can very clearly see here, wants to drag poetry down to earth from the Parnassian heights it had once inhabited kicking and screaming if at at all possible, and this humorously anti-putting on airs sentiment only intensifies throughout the rest of Poemas y antipoemas.  In the so-called anti-Neruda second part of the work, for instance, which Parra once described as "transicional" ["transitional"] between poetry and antipoetry (29), René de Costa calls attention to "Oda a unas palomas" ["Ode to Some Pigeons"] (see the complete text in Spanish here) for the way it imitates several technical aspects of Neruda's Odes before plunging the reader down into the "abismo de lo feo" ["abyss of ugliness"] (30) by dwelling not on the wonders of nature but on the "moscas" ["flies"] that these "divertidas" ["entertaining"] subjects the pigeons are eating in the garden of doom in the poem.  As a guy who happens to have fond memories of some of Neruda's humble odes (or at least his succulent "Oda al caldillo de congrio" ["Ode to Conger Chowder"]), even I was tickled by the Lautréamont-like scorn Parra heaped on the elemental nature of Neruda's verse (and outside of Poemas y antipoemas, in the semi-insulting double-edged sword of a comment in which P took a swipe at N by referring to him as this "monstruo de la poesía" ["monster of poetry"]) (20); however, lest you be put off by one poet mocking a rival by saying that pigeons "más ridículas son que una escopeta/O que una rosa llena de piojos" ["are more ridiculous than a shotgun/Or than a rose full of lice"], you should know that Parra's also willing to turn the shotgun of ridicule on himself as can be seen in his "Epitafio" ["Epitaph"] (see the complete text in Spanish here accompanied by an English translation from Jorge Elliott here); the description of the poet as the possessor of big ears and "Y una nariz de boxeador mulato/Baja a la boca de ídolo azteca/--Todo esto bañado/Por una luz entre irónica y pérfida--" [Elliott: "And the nose of a mulatto boxer/Over an Aztec idol's mouth/--All this bathed/In a light halfway between irony and perfidy"] is a winning one, but I'm also partial to the forward-thinking change of tense in the final lines: "Fui lo que fui: una mezcla/De vinagre y de aceite de comer/¡Un embutido de ángel y bestia!" [Elliott: "I was what I was: a mixture/Of vinegar and olive oil,/A sausage of angel and beast!"].  This "sausage of angel and beast" begins the final third of his work with an "Advertencia al lector" ["Warning to the Reader"] (see the complete text in Spanish here accompanied by an English translation from David Unger here) and concludes it with a "Soliloquio del Individuo" ["The Individual's Soliloquy"] (see the complete text in Spanish here accompanied by an English translation from, surprise, surprise, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg here), from which we can deduce that antipoetry isn't so much anti-poetry as anti-the poet Parra himself (Parra: "Mi poesía puede perfectamente no conducir a ninguna parte"; Unger: "My poetry may very well lead nowhere"), anti-the reader (when Parra jokingly threatens to bury his quills in the heads of his readers in "Warning to the Reader"), and above all anti-snobbery.  Fun is an important part of Parra's poetic project or, as René de Costa more helpfully puts it in terms of the Chilean poetry of the day, "lo que hizo Parra en Poemas y antipoemas (1954) --y no supo, o simplemente no quiso hacer Neruda, hasta después, en Estravagario (1958)-- fue ridiculizarse, autoironizarse" ["what Parra did in Poems and Antipoems (1954)--and what Neruda did not know how, or simply did not want to do, until later, in Extravagaria (1958)--was to mock himself, to subject himself to self-ridicule"] (21).  Why the mocking?  Maybe that's just the way Parra rolls, and maybe it's just because "la vida no tiene sentido" [Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg: "life doesn't make sense"] as the poet tells us in the final verse of Poemas y antipoemas.  Who am I, a mere prose fan, to argue with that?

Nicanor Parra

Parra's Poemas y antipoemas was read with Rise of in lieu of a field guide and Tom of Wuthering Expectations.  Rise's post on Parra's antipoems can be found here; Tom's two posts have been added here and aquí now that he's hit the publish button.  Also, here's a vintage 2011 post from Tom announcing Parra's plea to be awarded the Nobel Prize...for Reading.  Good stuff.
*
P.S. Since Poemas y antipoemas seems to have been published in piecemeal fashion only (the 1967 New Directions title Poems and Antipoems, for example, is actually a hodgepodge of four separate Parra works featuring very few poems from its Spanish-language namesake), I'll list the index of the Spanish collection for those wanting to read the poems in the order Parra intended them:

I
Sinfonía de cuna
Defensa del árbol
Catalina Parra
Preguntas a la hora del té
Hay un día feliz
Es olvido
Se canta al mar

II
Desorden en el cielo
San Antonio
Autorretrato
Canción
Oda a unas palomas
Epitafio

III
Advertencia al lector
Rompecabezas
Paisaje
Cartas a una desconocida
Notas de viaje
Madrigal
Solo de piano
El peregrino
Palabras a Tomás Lago
Recuerdos de juventud
El túnel
La víbora
La trampa
Los vicios del mundo moderno
Las tablas
Soliloquio del Individuo

miércoles, 5 de noviembre de 2014

Glaxo

Glaxo (Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2009)
by Hernán Ronsino
Argentina, 2009

Hernán Ronsino's 2009 Glaxo [French: Dernier train pour Buenos Aires; German: Letzter Zug nach Buenos Aires; Italian: Glaxo; English: as usual, no word on a translation as yet], at least in part a dialogue with Rodolfo Walsh's gripping 1957 "nonfiction novel" Operación Masacre [Operation Massacre, itself finally available in English after a 50-year wait] and at least in part a dialogue with John Sturges' 1959 western Last Train from Gun Hill--the temerity of which will be underappreciated if I neglect to mention that Glaxo includes a "character" who has jumped the tracks from Walsh's work and into Ronsino's world, is a terse, punchy, and yet immaculately structured novella which ably employs four narrators over the course of a four decade span in the service of a story having to do with bad blood among old friends, the arrogation of power, and an unsolved murder on the outskirts of a provincial Argentinean factory town. Fans of Ricardo Piglia's Blanco nocturno, Juan José Saer's Cicatrices or '50s and '60s French film noir should be particularly drawn to Ronsino's combination of storytelling moxie and the ubiquitous air of menace that hovers over the proceedings up until the violent final frame, but all that namedropping and the aforementioned intertextuality aside, the thing I prob. most appreciated about Glaxo is the subtlety of the work revealed in matters such as its disarmingly simple prose, the attention given to the characters' patterns of speech, and the fact that the experimentation with POV and time seemed cinematic without seeming showy.  "Yo también fui fusilado" ["I was also executed"] is the unforgettable testimony investigative reporter Rodolfo Walsh first heard upon meeting one of the survivors of a real life extrajudicial firing squad in 1956.  "Entonces salgo de la casa de los Barrios pensando si es justo perdonar a un moribundo" ["Then I leave the Barrios home wondering if it's right to forgive a dying man"] (31) reflects one of Ronsino's characters who will be implicated in the fictional equivalent of a crime almost as horrible and senseless.

Hernán Ronsino

I first read about Glaxo on Mario's Quaderno Ribadabia blog here and on Martín's El pez volador blog here.  Thanks to both of them for the recommendation.

The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom: October Links + Don Quixote Group Read Reminder (Non-Doom)

 
Having been an altogether lackluster host of the 2014 A(&U)LoD over its first two months this year, I'm going to try to make amends (read: do my best to make everybody sick and tired of hearing about Argentinean and Uruguayan lit) by contributing at least a weekly post on an Argentinean or Uruguayan theme from here on out for the remainder of the program.  Hopefully tinkering with the new posting schedule won't lead to an increase in altogether lackluster posts, but you can't have everything, can you?  In the meantime, here are some links to the great big name Doom posts on Quiroga, Bioy Casares and Ocampo, and Cortázar that Tom, Jacqui, and Miguel penned in October to go alongside my lone Juan Carlos Onetti review.  Enjoy!

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

JacquiWine, JacquiWine's Journal
Where There's Love, There's Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Miguel, St. Orberose

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
Juntacadáveres by Juan Carlos Onetti


P.S. I'm still planning on rereading Don Quixote in November and December if any of you are up for joining me for a good time at the end of the year, but I've decided to push back the posting schedule for part I of the novel to late November/early December and part II to late December/early January since the book is big and I've already been behind on almost every group read I've participated in this year--even the little ones.  I'll leave a list of other bloggers who had at one time expressed interest in reading DQ together below, but no worries if you'd like to read along but at a different pace.  The target dates are just for discussion purposes.

Other Don Quixote Readers?

domingo, 2 de noviembre de 2014

Mysteries

Mysteries [Mysterier] (Penguin Classics, 2001)
by Knut Hamsun [translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad]
Norway, 1892

Mysteries, which managed to live up to its name if not exactly its fame for me, my chief complaint being that the novel's unexpectedly dull in between its many authentically certifiable moments, ostensibly concerns the series of "highly unusual events" which takes place one summer in "a small Norwegian coastal town" upon the arrival of a certain Johan Nilsen Nagel (loc 496/6702).  Nagel, "who did a lot of curious things and then disappeared as suddenly as he had come," is a suitably enigmatic person of interest as the wraith-like center of attention in the work both because of the unpredictable things he says and does and because, as early as the first paragraph, the narrator refers to him as "a remarkable, eccentric charlatan" (Ibid.).  What's the purpose of the narrator calling Nagel out in this way?  You tell me.  However, one possible answer for the editorial is that Hamsun intended Mysteries to be an admonition not to look for causality in life or literature in the overly scripted manner practiced by his contemporaries.  After all, what better way to subvert the meaning of a text than to make the reader wonder whether either the narrator or the protagonist not to mention the novelist is to be trusted, to be taken at face value?  Hamsun, who's down on record in a Wikipedia entry with the Nagel-like comment that modern literature should reject realism and naturalism in order to dedicate itself to the "whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone marrow," is similarly hermetic and/or impenetrable throughout much of Mysteries (note: I leave you with a choice between sacred and secular adjective options at no extra charge).  Fortunately, it isn't necessary to understand his intentions in this Rorschach test-in-prose of his to be amused by them.  For example, chapters VIII and XIII both include great, slippery set pieces on the nature and value of literature in which it's not all that easy to see where the criticism ends and the lunacy begins.  In the earlier chapter, Nagel tells Dagny Kielland about an "adventure" he once had which "changes and becomes like a fairy tale" (loc 2350/6702).  The details aren't all that important for our purposes here, at least not in comparison to Nagel's explanation about how fairy tales in India differ from fairy tales in Norway: "On the whole, no one could match the Orientals' ability to hatch colossal delusions, feverish products of bridling brains."  The reason?  "It was all due to the fact that those people lived under a different sun and ate fruit instead of beef" (loc 2441/6702).  Is this all a goof on Nagel's or the narrator's or even Hamsun's part or just the effort of a brain-addled beau to keep a woman interested in him via nonstop chatter?  Whatever the case may be, the increasingly out of sorts Nagel later starts referring to other people as "carnivores" in the sequences before he pulls his vanishing act! (loc 5013/6702).  In the later chapter, a drinking party at Nagel's hotel provides our protagonist with the opportunity to deride Tolstoy as a "preacher" rather than a "thinker," a man no "deeper" than the founder of the Salvation Army in terms of his, ahem, writerly gnosis: "They sell existing products, popularize ready-made ideas," he rails, "vulgarizing them for the masses at bargain prices and causing commotion in the world.  But if you're going to sell, you must do so at a profit.  Tolstoy sells with staggering losses" (loc 3539/6702).  As the evening progresses, Nagel replies to a student's support of Maupassant "in an absurdly hotheaded manner, banging the table, bragging, attacking writers at random" and even "foaming at the mouth."  This may be a not so subtle hint that the character's views when drunk aren't meant to be taken seriously, but you'll note that the mainstream-and-middlebrow insults here are far more rabid and vicious than the ones Tolstoy endured.  Item: "If there appeared a writer, a truly inspired bard with music in his breast, you could be damn sure he would be placed far behind a coarse, prolific professional like Maupassant, a man who had written a lot about love and shown he could turn out book after book!"  Item: "Alfred de Musset, in whose work love was not just a routine of rutting but a delicate, ardent note of spring in his characters, and whose words were positively blazing in line after line--this writer probably didn't have half as many followers as puny Maupassant with his extremely coarse and soulless crotch poetry..." (loc 3712-3726/6702).  Item: A writer named Bjørnson, "a vivid, thunderous presence on our planet," receives drunken, sullen props from Nagel because he doesn't just "sit there like a sphinx before the people, making himself great and mysterious, like Tolstoy on his steppe or Ibsen in his café" (loc 3759/6702).  The point of this proto-Bernhardian insult fest?  I'm not entirely sure.  However, both this chapter and the earlier one demonstrate Hamsun's ability to engage in writing about writing in which little actual "meaning" may be visible to the naked or the monocled eye--in Nagelian ethics parlance, a fine prank on the carnivores!

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952)

My page number-less Kindle version of Mysteries with the striking cover art was read with Tom's year-long Scandinavian Literature of Doom reading proyecto in mind.  Will link to other posts on the novel besides his and Séamus' below once I find out about them.  In the meantime, some of the more crackpot religious reference variants in Hamsun's text are to be found in Sverre Lyngstad's notes to chapter XX: the chapter where Nagel tells Miniman that "in my heart, I see you as a cowardly, groveling angel of the Lord, with a kind word about everybody and a good deed every day" (loc 5507/6702) because Miniman had emptied out his poison bottle unbeknownst to him.  "I shall rip off your mask and make you betray your true nature; my blood bridles with repugnance every time I see your mendacious blue eyes, and I shrink from you because I feel you have the soul of a counterfeiter," Nagel says at one point (loc 5520/6702).  Lyngstad's footnote explains the substitution of "Jesuit" for "counterfeiter" in another edition of Mysteries.  Later in the chapter, Nagel worries that Miniman's relationship to Miss Gude is a cause for concern: "But in a general sense I may be permitted to feel distressed if you should associate with her and possibly affect her with your sanctimonious depravity" (loc 5536/6702).  Blunt language but maybe not quite as blunt as the anti-Jesuit variant signaled by Lyngstad: "P uses the phrase 'cunning Jesuitry' instead of 'sanctimonious depravity'"!

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Séamus, Vapour Trails

viernes, 31 de octubre de 2014

Juntacadáveres

Juntacadáveres (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2007)
por Juan Carlos Onetti
Uruguay, 1964

Nadie trata de la decadencia  --del alma, de la raza humana  --de forma exquisita como Onetti.  Al principio de Juntacadáveres, Larsen, también conocido como Junta o Juntacadáveres, llegue a Santa María en la compañía de tres "mujeres inverosímiles" (367) para establecer un prostíbulo en una casita en la costa.  Al final de la obra, Junta sale por el mismo tren, su sueño de "inaugurar el perfecto prostíbulo" (514) reducido a cenizas.  La historia del fracaso de Junta, un tipo describido en las primeras páginas del libro como un hombre "humillado y lacónico, pero demasiado ordinario" (364) y más tarde como un conocido "filatelista de putas pobres" (473), se cuenta por dos narradores (uno en primera persona y el otro en tercera) que también versan con la historia de Santa María con una prosa vital.  Resulta que esta ciudad, a pesar de la cruzada contra el prostíbulo organizado por el padre Bergner, está poblada por gente como el sobrino del cura que opina que "todos somos inmundos y la inmundicia que traemos desde el nacimiento, hombres y mujeres, se multiplica por la inmundicia del otro y el asco es insoportable" (532), otro personaje que se suicida, y un menor de edad que siente una gran necesidad de escapar de Santa María con Junta y sus "mujeres inverosímiles" antes de contagiarse con el "mundo normal y astuto" (578) que ha vivido en la ciudad hasta entonces.  A luz de esto, el lector se da cuenta que Larsen, un rufián que ha conocido "una vida definible o recordable por medio de olor a billetes y a mujer, por camisas de seda, biombos, abortos, churrasquerías junto al principio del campo, mejillas pulidas, nostalgia y la profesada indiferencia" (463) o sea una persona claramente corrumpida desde el punto de vista moral, en realidad no es mucho más "inmundo" que o cualquier de los otros habitantes de Santa María o, en cuanto a eso, nuestro amigo animoso Onetti:

Había que vivir y por eso inventó el patronazgo de las putas pobres, viejas, consumidas, desdeñadas.
Impasible en el centro de las miradas irónicas, en restaurantes que servían puchero en la madrugada, sonriendo a gordas cincuentonas y viejas huesosas con trajes de baile, paternal y tolerante, prodigando oídos y consejos, demostrando que para él continuaba siendo mujer toda aquella que lograra ganar billetes y tuviera la necesaria y desesperada confianza para regalárselos, conquistó el nombre de Junta Cadáveres, conquistó la beatitud adecuada para responder al apodo sin otra protesta que una pequeña sonrisa de astucia y conmiseración (514-515).

Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994)

Juntacadáveres se puede encontrar en las páginas 357-578 del libro Obras completas II.  Novelas II (1959-1993), de Juan Carlos Onetti (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2007).

martes, 28 de octubre de 2014

Morituri

Morituri (Gallimard, 2008)
by Yasmina Khadra
Algeria, 1997

When Tom from Wuthering Expectations kindly recommended Yasmina Khadra to me in response to this post for a "pure nightmare" evocation of Algeria in the 1990s, I wasn't worried that he was trying to dial things back when he later added "I'm not even sure Morituri is a good book, but who cares?"  And why should I have been?  I could see what Tom was talking about just from the novel's jolting opening line: "Saigné aux quatre veines, l'horizon accouche à la césarienne d'un jour qui, finalement, n'aura pas merité sa peine" ["Bled white, the skyline gives birth by C-section to a day, which, in the end, won't have been worth the trouble"] (459).  Morituri, nominally a vaguely Chandleresque policier having to do with a missing persons case but in reality just a pretext for Khadra (real name: Mohammed Moulessehoul; 1997 day job: officer in the Algerian army) to vent his spleen about the "olympiades terroristes" ["terrorist Olympics"] (571) that had descended upon his native country during Algeria's nasty civil war, delivers the mystery/thriller goods aplenty via a blistering, high octane pace--sort of a book version of the no-huddle offense--and a dark, plot-driven police procedural prominently featuring booby-trapped corpses, carbombings, and religiously motivated celebrity assassinations in addition to the usual mix of more civilized crimes.  Why would anybody want to "experience" Algeria in such a visceral realism way much less under the guise of entertainment?  Why not?  I missed the adrenaline rush provided by the novel when it was over, and even though Khadra's portrait of post-independence Algiers as a fear-filled Hell on the Mediterranean was just a little too grounded in the reality of its time and place for me to want to follow in Commissaire Llob's footsteps for tourism purposes in real life anytime soon, I did find it mightily refreshing to make the acquaintance of a "genre writer" whose hard-nosed prose, astonishingly enough, was often just as violent and corrosive and jittery as his subject matter: "Drôle d'époque!  Lorsqu'un collègue est tué par balle, on estime que c'est ce qui pouvait lui arriver de mieux - au vu des cadavres horriblement dépecés qui jalonnent la malheureuse terre d'Algérie" ["A funny thing about the era!  When a colleague dies from a bullet, we deem it to be the best thing that could have happened to him given the horribly carved up dead bodies strung out throughout the length of the wretched soil of Algeria"] (548).

Mohammed Moulessehoul

Morituri, Latin for "those who are about to die," appears on pp. 453-599 of Yasmina Khadra's Le quatuor algérien omnibus (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2008) alongside the 1997 Double blanc, the 1998 L'automne des chimères, and the 2004 La part du mort.  Thanks to Tom for bringing Khadra/Moulessehoul to my attention.